How to Have Successful One-to-One Meetings

There is no more important conversation for a leader than a one to one

I am a big believer in the power of one-to-one meetings with those we work with.  In Vistage, my favorite times of the month are the opportunities to sit down with my members, uninterrupted  and process through issues, brainstorm and even allow them to vent!  This article by Clay Parcells is well written and provides a great roadmap to effective one-to-ones in your business life.  I've added some resources, books and articles at the end of the post.

"How to have Successful One-to-Ones"

As a leader, are you having regular one-on-one meetings with your staff and direct reports?  These are regularly scheduled meetings with each and every one of your direct reports where you sit down and talk.  One-on-one meetings are an opportunity for the leader to LEAD.

It is your opportunity to inspire, influence, motivate, coach, listen, solve problems, make decisions, and create an environment where employees feel energized. You can’t do this with email.  If you lead and manage a team remotely, try to have a face-to-face monthly or quarterly as you conduct the majority of your conversations over the phone. As a leader, it is critical for you to be able to have open and honest conversations with your staff about their jobs, their performance, conflicts and development opportunities.

I’m amazed at the number of leaders who don’t schedule these one-on-one meetings as well as those who do and frequently cancel them due to other pressing issues.  As a leader what are you demonstrating to your employees? Frankly, that they are not important.  I understand that one-on-one meetings take time and sometimes, very pressing company or client issues come up that may require you to cancel your meeting.   However, those situations should be few and far between. 

Why do some leaders fail to schedule regular one-on-one meetings or don’t commit to those that are scheduled?  For some, it may be that they don’t know any better.  This is often the case for newly appointed managers or leaders.  Perhaps they had poor role model or no role model at all.  Or they don’t understand the value of them.  I hate to say it but some don’t enjoy talking face to face with their employees.  It is uncomfortable for them to address conflict, performance issues, to listen without judgment, and to discuss developmental opportunities. If that is the case for you, I recommend you go back to being an individual contributor because leadership is about inspiring, influencing and developing your staff.

Here are some practical tips in having effective one-on-one meetings with your team.

1.         Have scheduled one-on-one meetings and never miss them.

Consistently schedule one-on-one meetings for the same time each week. This develops the habit for you and your direct reports.  Set an agenda and be flexible about what each of your direct reports wants and needs from you during this meeting.  Remember this meeting is to help them.  In today’s high-pressure environment the success of your team depends on the individuals in your team being successful. The purpose of a one-on-one meeting is to provide your direct report with the information to do his/her job and about providing you with the information you need to help him/her do his job.

I would argue that one-on-one meetings should be the single most important meeting in your calendar and should never be cancelled.  However, that is not always possible. If you need to cancel a one-on-one meeting, reschedule it as soon as possible after the original booking, or even better, before. This shows your commitment to your staff and demonstrates that they are important.  Habitually cancelling one-on-one meetings undermines their usefulness and can disenfranchise your direct reports.

2.         Create a safe environment.

One-on-one meetings should be primarily about accurate status for the leader/manager, and continuous improvement for the employee. In order to get the maximum benefit from the one-on-one meeting you must create a non-threatening meeting environment.

Provide constructive feedback/coaching on how to prevent issues from recurring as well as what they are doing well. Try not to play the blame game. Accountability and responsibility are key; but if you start with the blame game, your direct reports may close down, and then you won’t get the information you need until it is too late to fix it.

If you need to have a performance discussion or discipline a direct report, set up a time separate from the one-on-one meeting time to discuss disciplinary or performance issues.

3.         Eliminate all interruptions.

This is your time with your direct report. Turn off your Blackberry or put it on vibrate and place it in your pocket and ignore it.  Move the computer screen away and forward your phone if you can.  As the leader you want to get maximum productivity out of your one-on-one meetings, you need to make your direct report feel like for a specified period of time they have your undivided attention. This means absolutely no interruptions. Close your door or find a private conference room if your office is a cubicle.

4.         How to schedule your one-on-one meetings.

When should you schedule your one-on-one meetings?  A good suggestion is that one-on-one meetings should be one half hour, once a week.  The best answer is whenever fits best in your schedule and the schedule of your direct reports. Personally, I have always preferred to have my one-on-one meetings on Monday or early in the week. The reason I liked Monday’s is because it gave me lots of time to work on and resolve any action items they came up that were my responsibility and it’s the start of the week. 

I would schedule these not on Monday morning since everyone just got back from a long and hopefully restful weekend.  Look at your schedule and see when primarily most of your meetings are set up.  Usually most meetings that you attend are between 10 AM and 4:00 PM, leaving the times early in the day free  to use for one-on-one meetings. 

5.         How best to prepare.

Your preparation for a one-on-one meeting should begin the second that the previous meeting for your direct report ends. You may want to keep a computer file or personal folder for each direct report and whenever you think of something you need to talk to them about in the next meeting, make a note in the folder.

Create an agenda for your one-on-one meetings and make sure your directs have some input on the format and items to discuss.  Remember both you and your employees should clearly articulate your expectations for these meetings.

A suggested format may include the following categories:

·      Accomplishments & status – a list of current projects, or sales with one or two sentences describing progress and status on each. Identify what roadblocks are preventing the projects and sales from moving forward.

·      To do – a high-level to-do list of what you would like to accomplish in the next week.

·      Areas to develop – areas of development and what activities you have undertaken to develop in those areas.

·      Quarterly goal tracking – Whether you establish goals monthly, quarterly or yearly, you and your direct reports should be making steady progress toward fulfilling those goals.

6.         What should the format look like?

Time is precious so use it effectively.  All you need is 30 minutes for these update meetings.  Therefore you can divide the meetings into thirds. One-third for your direct report to discuss their stuff on the agenda; one-third for you to pass on information that you think may be of value to your direct report, discuss items of special interest to you and delegate new work; and one-third for assisting the employee with development opportunities.

Remember these are guidelines only. I recall some of my direct report meetings were focused on one or two areas with little spent on the others. The important thing is not to neglect any one of the areas since each are important to the success of your direct report and to the overall success of your one-on-one meetings.

7.         What questions do you have for them and what questions do you want them to ask you?

What questions should you ask?  It depends on the issues you talk about.  But try to use open-ended questions that start with (What, Where, How) and then focus in the areas that are important to you and your direct report. Some additional effective questions include: What obstacles are getting in the way and what can I do as the leader to remove the obstacles; what can you/we do differently next time; what do you need from me; how are you going to approach this; what areas are ahead of schedule; are you on track to meet your deadlines or quota; what will you do differently and what do you think?

Questions you may want your employees to ask you include: What do I need to do to continue to demonstrate my commitment to you as your leader/manager; what should I stop doing that may be getting in the way; what more can I do to support you?

Remember asking questions is extremely important.  So is listening to the answers.  Don’t interrupt and use your active listening skills to really understand where your employees are coming from. 

8.         Your meeting wrap up.

At the end of the meeting be sure that the actions from the meeting are recorded, and review the actions with the direct report so the actions are clearly understood.  Ask the direct report if there is anything else they would like to discuss.

9.         Post-meeting action.

For the one-on-one meetings to be successful what you do after the meeting is at least as important as the meeting itself. Using whatever method you do to track your work; the actions you are responsible for need to be worked on. One of the quickest ways to erode the effectiveness of your one-on-one meetings, and most likely your relationship with your direct reports, is to agree to actions on behalf of your direct reports and not follow up on them.

It is imperative for leaders to have regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.  It is important for their development, and will help to increase their engagement, and their commitment to your vision, to the company’s strategies and goals.  Higher engagement and commitment will lead to greater retention of staff that you want to keep, greater customer satisfaction that will lead to greater revenue growth and profits for the business.




Fierce Conversations, Scott

Leadership is an Art, DePree

That’s a Great Question, Bustin

Power Questions, Solbel/Panas

Conversational Capacity, Weber